Take Two #37: Presto!
I am so deeply grateful to my mentors. And the older I get, I find myself at times overcome when I think back to the generosity of the teachers and guides who showed me the way, who in the early years literally took me by the hand to help keep me on the right path in my art.
I have devoted a significant part of my energies in the world of magic to teaching, sharing, guiding, and thinking about the role of mentoring. And as I see multiple generations follow behind me and finding their own paths—protégés in their 40s, their 30s, their 20s—I realize that one of the greatest lessons my mentors taught me was the very act of mentoring. Passing their knowledge down to me, and others like me, was showing me a way of being in the art, a lesson so big I didn’t see it, so absolute in its presence, I didn’t know it. But looking back …
My first magic teacher was not a magician—he was my father. An amateur magician friend directed him to Tannen’s Magic after fooling my dad with a “Color Vision Box,” and my dad went to 42nd Street, to the top floor of the Wurlitzer building, to buy one for me. There he met Louis Tannen, who taught my father the trick, and in turn, my dad happened upon a brilliant and inspirational insight. He took my mother and I out to dinner—I was probably seven years old—and performed the trick for us. Only later that night, when we were home together, did he reveal the secret of the trick solely to me. And this became a pattern for the next couple of years, and a brilliant one at that, because when you are starting in magic, and you discover how simple the principles of the secrets can be, you have to survive the “Is that all it is?” disappointments, and that turn to fear when you’re trying to muster the courage to fool someone else with your magic trick. But in those moments of terror and uncertainty, my father could always remind me with the touchstone of his own performance: “Remember when I fooled you with it? Remember how the magic felt?” And that would restore my confidence. And so my dad became my first magic teacher, who never performed a trick more than once.
After a couple of years of this, and the requisite magic kits, and beginning instructional books and the like, he began to take me to Tannen’s Magic, where I could learn directly from the master behind the counter, Louis Tannen himself. Lou taught me my first sleight of hand, with sponge balls, dice, coins, and cups and balls. I recount some of these tales in a piece entitled, “Real Secrets,” in my first book, Shattering Illusions. But I can’t talk about my own mentors without first mentioning my father, Evans C. Reitman-Swiss, and Louis Tannen.
In this week’s Take Two, however, it is my next mentor in line about whom I wish to tell you. His real name was Earl Johnson, but everyone in the magic world in New York City and around the Northeast United States, in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, knew him simply as “Presto.” As soon as you said “Presto” in that part of the magic world, everybody knew who you were talking about. “Prez” to his friends. And I was one of them. I never heard anybody call him Earl.
I met Presto hanging around Tannen’s in my days as a painfully shy and introverted young adolescent. By the time I was ten or eleven I was traveling to Tannen’s on my own on many Saturdays, taking the long subway ride into Manhattan and spending the afternoon at the shop, quietly watching magic, occasionally talking with the demonstrators and others gathered in the shop, carefully spending my money on new treasures, learning new tricks, and buying new books. Presto was one of the many magic personalities who were steady presences at the shop, and he was a marvelously gentle and generous spirit. And he did incredible magic, especially with coins.
One day when walking through the Times Square underground subway arcade, I heard a familiar voice. When I turned the corner, there was Presto, in a stall, pitching magic. One of the tricks he was selling was a little gadget sometimes known as a “Coin Go Vanisher,” in which Presto would take a half dollar at the very tips of his fingers, press it against his pants, fold a bit of the pants material over it for a moment, and the coin would instantly vanish—completely, absolutely, inexplicably.
That was the first trick Presto had previously taught me up at Tannen’s, and he’d given me the “real work” on the version he did, which was a little better than what he sold. And so at twelve or thirteen or fourteen or thereabouts, I rarely left home without that trick on me, among the handful of pocket magic I always had on hand, and I indicated to Presto that I had mine on me, in a shy wave of recognition to my friend. Suddenly, after doing his demo, Presto spontaneously called on me to perform the trick for the crowd. I was terrified to be put on the spot, but it was actually a gift to me that I didn’t understand at the time. I did the trick, and it worked, and Presto sold a bunch. And I got a blast of confidence that probably had a lot to do with my eventually becoming a professional magician, decades into the future.
In my book, Preserving Mystery, I include a lengthy tribute to Presto, which tells more about his life, about what I learned from him, and includes some original magic of his that has never been published. It also includes the script for a piece I performed in a one-man show in the New York International Fringe Festival in 2000, recreating that memorable experience in the subway arcade. I was able to arrange for Presto to attend the show, and I will forever celebrate having had the opportunity to pay him public tribute. Before that, in 1998, we producers of Monday Night Magic held a “Grand Masters of Magic” night, in which we paid tribute to four local and influential New York maestros: Jackie Flosso (son of Al Flosso, who I have previously profiled in Take Two #30); Bobby Baxter, a brilliant comic magician and manipulator who performed into his 80s at Monday Night Magic; Frank Brents, billed as “America’s Black Magician” in the 1970s and beyond, and one of our founding partners in Monday Night Magic and our in-house mentor; and Presto, to whom I was able to personally present his award.
And, speaking of that: yes, Presto was also African-American, and there weren’t many black magicians around in those days. Besides Frank Brents, another of Presto’s close black colleagues was William McQueen, who was a celebrated street performer in New York City in the ‘70s, and eventually moved to Florida and became an accomplished cruise ship worker. And Presto would also serve as mentor to Chris Capehart, whose work I included in Take Two on Street Magic, Part One, and also in the installment about the Linking Rings. And much like myself, Chris has carried on the tradition of mentorship that we were both schooled in by Presto.
Earl “Presto” Johnson was a full-time working magician who lived in New York City and would work anywhere they would pay him to go, and provide the transportation, since he didn’t drive. That was a lot of places (including as far as Alaska during the boom years of the Alaska Pipeline construction), and Presto was a busy guy through most of the years I knew him. He was a veteran sideshow worker, doing magic and fire-eating at the legendary Hubert’s Museum in Times Square. He was a fabulously funny comic performer, who could work for any kind of audience, from sophisticated nightclubs to children’s parties—and he did a lot of children’s parties, and loved doing them.
He was also an extraordinarily skilled manipulator, specializing on stage in a branch of magic that is now all but extinct, namely magic done with cigarettes. But rather than perform silently to music in a strictly structured, classical approach, Presto was a real-world “worker” who talked his way through the manipulative magic, just as he talked through all of his show, with his precise and gentle language, a kindly smile, and that silky smooth voice, that when I listen to it today, whisks me back in time and place.
He was equally expert with coins, and was the originator of a coin sleight that is a standard in the repertoire of any advanced close-up coin worker, and will be until the end of time. He made me fall in love with coin magic at a young age, well before I became enamored of magic with playing cards. And in fact, since he was first and foremost a sleight-of-hand artist, much of his standup and platform work was magic that was fairly small, often of almost close-up scale, cleverly adapted for and presented on stage. Mixing in a few small apparatus pieces for size and comic effect, Presto could do a great show almost anywhere for almost any kind of audience. He was, as we say, a “worker.”
And the other part of that phrase that began with “sleight of hand” ends with “artist,” and he was also that in every way, by any measure. Whether he was creating his own material out of whole cloth, or adapting standard tricks with completely original scripts and “presentations,” Presto believed deeply in putting his indelible stamp on every bit of magic he did, small or large, short or long. He made it his own, or he wouldn’t do it. He taught me those principles early on, just as he taught me that damnably hard coin sleight (and made me practice it with both hands), just as he taught me to uphold ethical standards and why you should never steal or copy another performer’s material, and as he taught me that real magic was done with sleight of hand, and learned from books. It wasn’t—and couldn’t!—simply be bought over the counter at the magic shop.
To me, Presto was a real magician—maybe the first real magician I ever knew up close. Someone who did magic at the very highest level, who was a full-time working pro, and who talked to me, kindly and generously, and shared secrets with me. I was in awe of him in those early adolescent years—he seemed like some kind of magical creature, with his black beret, and goatee and moustache, and ever-ready handful of coins for an instant miracle. Later I came to understand more about how talented and original an artist he was. And, still later, how beloved he was—for example when late in life, developing a heart condition and too old to work, and lacking medical coverage or a retirement fund, a fundraiser was organized in New York to raise money for his medical care, and the tremendous turnout comprised a veritable Who’s Who of the local magic scene.
Presto passed away in 2009, and I still think of him often, and my affection and gratitude, rather than ebbing, continues to swell. I’ve been wavering on whether or not to do a Take Two about Presto, only because the film resources we have of his work are so terribly slender. But now that we are this far along, and many of you are regular readers and viewers, I hope that I have sufficiently earned your confidence in order to ask you to bear with me this week, because the quality of these recordings is the poorest I have offered. But I do think that if you invest sufficiently in them, you will be able to see what I am hoping to show to you: a brilliant, unique, marvelous magician. A mentor, a teacher, and truly, an inspiration: Presto!
We have three clips, all taken from the same show. As I’ve said, the visual quality is poor, degraded through multiple generations of reproduction. Fortunately, however, the sound is quite good, and that has a lot to do with bringing Presto to life for you.
I’m offering these in the order they would have occurred in Presto’s shows. The opening segment is magic with cigarettes, and the level of skill here is at the level of any world-class manipulator. Unfortunately it’s difficult to see, but if you expand the browser, set the smart phone aside for a while, and especially, turn up the sound, I am hoping you will begin to capture a sense of this unique and wondrous performer. Check out his getup: Presto is dressed in white tails, white shorts, black knee socks, and athletic shoes, with a bandana on his head (a frequent accessory), topped by a white satin top hat (he always wore some kind of hat, and that may have been a contributing seminal influence to my own lifelong fondness for headwear).
You will quickly grasp how straightforward his commentary is—in the sense that it is charming and at times funny, but above all, it is remarkably truthful and honest. This is a trait that Presto shared with his friend and colleague, William McQueen, who would sometimes outright state the method of the trick, but in such a manner that the audience took it to be irony rather than truth, since the visual quality of the magic rendered the explanation literally unbelievable.
One important note about something that’s difficult to see in the clip: When the spectator from the audience tosses a cigarette to Presto and he catches it, that cigarette is already lit—the audience member was smoking it at the time. This was unrehearsed, it’s real, and yes, he just catches it and proceeds to perform with it. Also, because of the lighting, you can barely see the smoke, but trust me, when Presto was blowing smoke at certain key times in the routine, it is billowing from his mouth most of the time. He is doing things here that are incredibly difficult, and even when cigarette magic was more common, few could duplicate these skills—not only the manipulation, but about that glass of water … make no mistake, that water is real.
Here’s a nice sample taken from the middle of the act, in which Presto puts to use a couple of standard mechanical props, but in utterly original and comical ways that tremendously enlarge these tricks. There are two: one is the Needle Through Balloon, and the other is known as the Lota Bowl, on which Presto’s little dog sits. Both are charming and hilarious elaborations of tricks that are often done in straightforward demonstrations that add little beyond the mere workings of the apparatus. (Chris Capehart uses a version of the little dog routine, with his mentor’s permission, albeit it has been copied by others.) Note also that while Presto has some trouble with the balloon breaking, a typical risk with this routine, he simply takes it in stride, and has some funny lines to keep the piece moving.
I’ve saved the best for last. In my recent Take Two #34 about Slydini, I provided an excellent Slydini performance of one of his signature routines, the Paper Balls Over the Head. Countless other magicians do this routine—and as I mentioned, few if any with the skill and finesse that Slydini brought to it—but Presto accomplished something unique. Although he knew Slydini and learned the routine from the master himself, he then went on to evolve his own version, a radical departure done with sponge balls.
This routine is, quite simply, a masterpiece. It is of course hilarious, but it is also amazing, and the expressions and response that he elicits from his onstage assistant are priceless, as is the openly playful relationship he develops with his volunteer. He is combining sleight-of-hand techniques in ways that are original and astonishing, for both the audience and the spectator, and unlike Slydini’s original, he has worked this out so that he can perform with the spectator standing on stage next to him rather than seated on a chair. He also builds to the inclusion of the classic sponge ball transposition to the spectator’s hand, but that registers as a miracle by the time it comes in his routine.
I hope you enjoy, and can appreciate, this small taste of a wonderful man and accomplished artist. As skillful as the manipulation as, as original as the routining is, above all what comes through is Presto’s incredible warmth, and joy, and sincerity. I hear his voice in these tapes and it courses through my entire body, which trembles with gratitude and love for this great artist who gave me, and so many others, so much.
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